Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cigarettes: The Most Illegal Legal Substance!

I heard a radio interview yesterday in which vivid descriptions were given of the new warning labels that will be required of all cigarette packages in the United States as of September 2012. This entire government anti-smoking campaign is beginning to look truly absurd to me. The FDA has described these images of diseased lungs, dying cancer patients, and the like as “the most significant advancement in communicating the dangers of smoking.” Is that really what this is? Is that even a reasonable goal at this point? I mean, do we really expect anyone, anywhere to pick up a pack of cigarettes, look at the graphic image declaring that “cigarettes cause stroke and heart disease,” and then exclaim, “I didn’t know that!”? Perhaps I am giving my fellow citizens too much credit, but I don’t think anyone is that ignorant.

I can’t help but think of the climax of the film “Thank You For Smoking,” in which Aaron Eckhart’s character, a tobacco lobbyist, is asked point blank by a Congressional panel whether he thinks cigarettes are dangerous and he stuns everyone by plainly answering “yes.” He proceeds to rhetorically ask whether anyone in the room isn’t sure whether cigarettes are dangerous, and makes his pro-tobacco argument on the basis of freedom of choice even when we know something is bad for us.

I think that does well to describe the situation we’re facing. The public has been thoroughly informed about the dangers of smoking. I don’t think anyone is left with doubt about the harm it can do. The question we’re left with is just whether people have the freedom to choose to smoke in spite of that. The answer very well may be no. That’s the answer when it comes to any of a multitude of illicit drugs. Thus far, though, tobacco has been a legal substance, which people are free to consume and the government is free to tax. These ongoing efforts at “public education” push the conflict into the realm of absurdity because the duty for public education has already been fulfilled, and the rest is just an attempt at discouraging certain legal behaviors.

Certainly, it can be argued that an appropriate role of government is to promote the public welfare by advocating some lifestyles and outlawing others. Public awareness campaigns like the food pyramid, now just the dinner plate, are examples of the former. Making drugs and prostitution illegal are examples of the other side of that government function. But anything that falls in between, I think, is an attempt at controlling behavior, and something unbecoming of a free society. After we’ve decided that something is damaging to the general well-being, there comes a time when the government has to make a decision about whether to make it illegal or to simply let people have their vice, health and longevity be damned. To do anything else is to make the potentially dangerous claim that there is a role to be found for the government in attempting to control private behavior even when that behavior is not illegal and its consequences are understood.

New York State and particularly New York City are way ahead with this mentality. New York City has just banned smoking in public parks, pushing cigarettes still farther towards a status of being made illegal through a series of decrees about their use without the item actually being legislatively outlawed. The city, state, and federal governments may feel very good about themselves for measures like this, but the fact is that if they feel so strongly that, for their own good, no one should be smoking, by allowing the production and consumption of cigarettes to remain a legal activity, they are not doing all they can to discourage it, and they are thus complicit in the ill effects wrought on those not reached by shocking visual warning labels.

Meanwhile, the government continues to collect taxes on cigarette sales, making their role in the tobacco conflict severely duplicitous. When your campaign against something you deem awful is comprised of a series of half-measures, that is questionable, but when you’re actually profiting off of the evil you preach against, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your morals. New York State has even gone so far as to violate Native American treaties in order to begin collecting taxes on cigarette sales on reservation lands. To my mind, that sends the message that while the use of cigarettes by private individuals is unconscionable, they are not so bad as to be restricted by the government, and in fact they are not so bad that it’s not worth violating other ethical principles for the sake of securing their revenue.

This is the moral and logical tangle that results when an establishment tries with all its might to avoid breaking points. That breaking point might sway society to either side of this issue, prompting government to reconcile to the fact that some people are just going to smoke no matter what, or else to decide that it can no longer be accepted at all, and that it is time for cigarettes to go the way of cocaine and other drugs. But to go on trying to play both sides serves no one and only encourages some dark trends in government.

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